The Pictograms of Plague

A picture can paint a thousand words, a saying ascribed variously to “the Chinese”, 1920s American ad man Frederick Barnard, or the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, depending on whom you believe. But the power of the pictogram cannot be underestimated. The facemask as a symbol of protection, or the footsteps plastered on the pavement as a metonym for social distancing, have become ingrained visual shorthand for all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ireland, the plague palette has been yellow and black.

All of the official informational postering and most of the pictograms have appeared in these two colours. How were they chosen? Well, for one, black on yellow is typographically clear and arresting and the posters contained a lot of information – and at the start of the lockdown a lot of new information – so visual clarity was very important.

A warning from the 1918 flu epidemic

Secondly, we are conditioned to reading these colours as signalling danger from our roads and hazard signage. Ireland signed up for the Vienna Convention on Road Signage – yes, there is such a thing – in 1968 along with 37 other countries, including the US , Australia, Canada and Mexico, agreeing to use warning signs that were black on a yellow background. This colour combination is related to the insect world and our perceptions of it, apparently – think bees and wasps for whom we have a healthy respect lest they sting us, so we associate their uniform with danger.

This may be an old wives tale, but whatever the reason, the colours together have a skull and crossbones vibe about them, so we’re primed visually to brace ourselves even before we get to read the message. This in a world where a whole new vocabulary is in place, or the old one has been repurposed.

Cocoon and vector are part of the new terminology; flattening the curve has shed its weight gain associations. Quarantine, self-isolation, furlough, asymptomatic, working from home and vaccination have taken on a new emphasis since the start of the pandemic – another word that’s bandied about freely now. But as Paul Elie – https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/paul-elie – argued in a piece in the New Yorker in March, we’ve been employing the language and imagery of viruses for many decades, just not to describe literal illness.

“It was there in the computer virus. . . It was there, most blithely, as an expression of the reach and spontaneity of social media. We watched as cat videos, practical jokes, blunders, over-the-shoulder half-court shots, and celebrity meltdowns all went ‘viral’. And it was there in the notion that those who could make things go viral were to be celebrated, cultivated, compensated, imitated. The term devised for them – we realise in rueful retrospect – has a distinct echo of the worst virus of modern times, the influenza pandemic of 1918. They were called influencers.”

But if such language has been lodged in the public consciousness, how many of the iconic images of the pandemic will survive in the collective memory? What will be COVID-19’s equivalent to Rosie the Rivetter? (The bicep-baring worker under the “We Can Do It” banner was created by J Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh in 1942 and became the defining symbol of working women during the Second World War in the US.)

My vote goes to the image at the top of this post created by Israeli designer Noma Bar http://nomabar.com/ – in an initiative organised by Spanish graphic designer Alvaro Lopez and Italian paper manufacturer Fedrigoni to raise funds for the NHS in Britain. Artists were asked to design a series of limited edition posters on the theme of observing lockdown. Bar, who’s resident in London, dedicated his design to frontline workers.

“I wanted the viewers to discover the house shape in between the gap of the mask and the head cover; the eyes are two people in quarantine sitting by the window. I think that you can feel the level of stress in the eyes. They look sideways as if something happened outside.”

With graphic simplicity Bar manages to communicate several layers of meaning at once – the burden on the frontline, the isolation of quarantine, the interdependence of the two, and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, the latter surely the hallmark of our time of plague.

The Catfight Theory

mrs-america-cate-blanchett-01-scaled
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist activist who led the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US in the 1970s

No sooner had the ink dried on the 10 Emmy nominations for Mrs America, a FX mini-series about the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US,  than veteran feminist activist and journalist Gloria Steinem came out to accuse the series of “misrepresenting history”.

The amendment to the US constitution, demanding equality of rights under the law regardless of sex, was  first mooted in 1923 and passed by the US Senate in 1972.  However, to become law the ERA had to be ratified by 38 states before a 1982 deadline.

It became a bitter battleground between the women’s liberation movement (pro-amendment) and STOP ERA , an alliance of the conservative right, headed up by pro-lifer Phyllis Schlafly, who successfully prevented it reaching that threshold.

This week Steinem penned an article in the Los Angeles Times  (along with Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation) decrying the series.  She insisted she was not writing out of a personal gripe,  although she says the show “gets my haircut right and my character wrong”.

The plot of Mrs America, she says, seems to depend on a trivialisation of women, putting  the failure to ratify the ERA down to personal feuding and female in-fighting. 

“Would a national legislative failure of the civil rights movement be attributed to a rivalry between followers of Martin Luther King Jr. and followers of Malcolm X? Somehow, we don’t think so,” she writes. “The bottom line is this: Mrs America has described deck chairs on the Titanic but lied about why the Titanic went down.  Instead it has given us the Catfight Theory of History.”

For anyone recasting history as fiction – which I’ve spent my whole writing life doing – this is a familiar complaint.   Luckily for me, most of the characters I’ve written about – Franziska Schanzkowska  a Polish factory worker who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, Bella Casey sister of playwright  Sean O’Casey, or most recently Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce – are conveniently dead. But Mrs America chronicles events that are only 40 years old, and some of the players are still with us, including Steinem.

The show runners face the same challenges as historical novelists – how to collate a large amount of factual  material and present it in a digestible way with a satisfying narrative arc and characters with whom the viewer/reader can identify, without distorting history.

“Hollywood can tell any story, regardless of history,” Steinem concedes, “but this one is being presented as fact, and has arrived in a perfect storm of circumstance. Months of COVID-19 lockdown have given the nine episodes of Mrs. America a captive-at-home audience, and reviews have focused on women’s hairstyles and individual rivalries, not the real reason state legislators voted against the ERA.”

As an avid fan of the series, I  wouldn’t dare to argue with Steinem. She was there, after all.

But there are health warnings before every episode making clear that it is fiction not history and flagging that certain liberties have been taken with the characters; also, the series creators can hardly be blamed for the reviews or the lockdown bounce that also helped Normal People on its way.

I came of age in the 1970s, the era of American feminism and politics depicted in Mrs America. I’d read Betty Friedan (played by Tracey Ullman) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), but I found this series illuminating because it introduced me to so much that I didn’t know. I’d never heard of Phyllis Schlafly, the central character of Mrs America.  (Steinem argues that the focus on Schlafly credits her with undue importance as an influencer.)

Likewise, I wasn’t familiar with Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) a three-term Democrat politician who battled to get women’s issues taken seriously inside the tent of congressional politics, and who led the National Advisory Commission for Women in the Carter administration – though she was ultimately fired unceremoniously by the president.

Neither, I’m ashamed to say,  did I know anything about Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba),  the first black woman elected to Congress and a pioneering candidate for president in the 1972 Democratic Primary.  (That’s 37 years before Obama!)  Was that colour blindness on my part?

I’m wondering how many viewers out there are, like me, reaching for factual accounts of the era, as a result of seeing Mrs America.  Fiction, with all its limitations and compromises, has the power to ignite interest in the history.  And there are plenty of sources available – Steinem’s autobiography, My Life on the Run, is one. Another is the LA Times’ helpful episode-by-episode fact check of  Mrs America so that the discerning viewer can make up her own mind about the show’s filter and emphasis.

Speaking of filters, the creative decision to view a lot of the action of Mrs America through Phyllis Schlafly’s point-of-view was a brave one, given her ultra-conservative views on abortion, gay rights and working women. Cate Blanchett gives a riveting performance that combines a calculating feyness with a steely intelligence.  Schlafly is not demonised here (though Betty Friedan famously called for her to be burned at the stake during a heated debate) but portrayed as a serious woman, whose political and career ambitions were also thwarted by the prevailing patriarchy she so actively embraced.

My criticism of the series is not in its “fictionalising” of real characters for dramatic purposes, but in its treatment of its fictional characters. “Alice Macray” – played by Sarah Paulson – is one of Phyllis Schlafly’s right-hand women, who becomes turned on –  literally – to the other side’s arguments at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977.  This was a major political event that attracted 20,000 attendees of all political stripes who met to draft a plan of action on 26 issues, including abortion, rape, childcare, and employment rights  – to present to President Carter.  Macray’s partial dark night of the soul eclipses the conference itself, which was characterised by Gloria Steinem in her autobiography as “the most important event nobody knows about”.

It may have been good drama to give one of Schlafly’s supporters a drug-induced Road to Damascus experience but it’s really a cheap Hollywood set piece. Interesting too, that it isn’t one of the feminist women who becomes a doubter – now that really would have been daring.

Equally underplayed is a counter-rally Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign group organised in Houston to clash with the conference, which attracted 12,000 supporters and was seen as a crucial turning point in American politics.

Historian Marjorie Spruill has argued that the alliances formed at this counter-rally –  between single-issue voters from disparate religious groups  – had the effect of uniting  opponents of abortion, the ERA and gay rights under a single “pro-family” movement that became increasingly influential in Republican politics. (President Trump gave the oration at Schlafly’s funeral in September 2016.)

The importance of the show is that it demonstrates that the ERA was not just about a battle for the hearts and minds of a sectional interest. As Spruill says: “The issues that polarised American women during the ‘70s basically have polarised the whole nation.”

This is what makes Mrs America so compelling.  Pace Gloria Steinem.

As for the Equal Rights Amendment.  Forty years on the ERA is still not law, even though in January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it.  But that 1982 deadline still holds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Press Button A

art of the glimpse

You’re wondering about the heading, aren’t you?

What has it got to do with The Art of the Glimpse (lovely title and exquisite cover design by  Owen Gent) of a new collection of  Irish short stories which features 100 practitioners of the form, old and new, including yours truly.  The anthology is forthcoming from Head of Zeus and edited by Sinéad Gleeson –  she of Constellations fame and the newly-announced winner of the Dalkey Book Prize.

Well, the story of mine that Sinéad chose is from my first collection A Lazy Eye (Jonathan Cape 1995) which is called “Divided Attention”.  It’s a story I have a soft spot for because it was the first time I wrote in the second person voice, but other anthologists haven’t shared my enthusiasm for it, until Sinéad came along, that is.

Because it was composed originally on an ancient Amstrad, I had to transcribe the story  on to my current laptop for Head of Zeus.  As I did some small edits along the way, I began to realise how archival the story had become in the 30 or more years since I wrote it.

It was an utterly 20th century creation, a story that couldn’t, and wouldn’t be written now.  Not because of political correctness, or the storyline, but because of technology.

Briefly, the plot is this.  The narrator, a woman in her thirties, shares her guilt about an affair with a married man, by confessing her feelings to a man who makes a series of abusive calls to her in the middle of the night.

Here are five props and devices (both plot and apparatus) I’d have to rethink if I were to bring the story up to date.

1.The landline: the telephonic encounter between the man, who is (mostly) silent, and the female narrator is  conducted exclusively on a landline. A what?

phone box

2. The phone box: the abusive caller, who’s engaged in what one might euphemistically describe as  digital activities (in the old-fashioned sense) while on the phone, uses a public phone box. Which is where the Press button A line comes in.  The phone kiosk referenced in this story featured a coin-operated phone.  You inserted your coins one by one into a slot on the top and dialled your number. When the other party answered you pressed button A in order to be heard.  (If there was no reply, you pressed button B and got your money back through a silver chute at the bottom – sometimes!) As I write this, I realise it doesn’t sound archival, it sounds prehistoric!

3. Caller ID: the narrator’s phone is a fixed, manual, non-digital, stand-alone instrument attached to a wall socket. It has no electronic display. Caller ID has not been invented.

4.  Public exhibitionism: The narrator describes a much earlier encounter with a man who exposes himself on the street.  For anyone of my generation, this was the persistent  sexual threat of our youth. There seemed to be no end of men in dirty macs whose full-time job it was to expose themselves on buses, in cinemas, on the street. The advent of the internet has driven them indoors; I imagine they’re all now porn purveyors on their screens at home.

5. Monetisation of the “dirty” phone call:  Nowadays you elect to experience smut on the phone, and you have to pay for it.  The free dirty phone call is a thing of the past.

Around the time I wrote this story one of my party pieces was a poem by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, called “Do Not Pick Up the Telephone” which I admired for its superstitious misanthropy.  It’s a most untypical poem of his in that it isn’t about eagles or crows, or nature, “red in tooth and claw”.  It’s about the perils of the phone, a purveyor in Hughes’ mind, of bad news and death.

I sought the poem out and realised that it’s almost as archival as my story.

Death invented the phone, it looks like the altar of death, he writes. Not any more, Ted.

You plastic crab, he berates it, which is a perfect analogy for those crouching models of the 80s and 90s, but not right for a slimline mobile.

World’s emptiness oceans in your mouthpiece/Stupidly your string dangles into the abyss – Mouthpiece? String?  All old hat with wi-fi, Ted.

But although the phone is as outmoded as the one in my story,  Hughes’ poetic rage remains admirably deathless!

“O phone, get out of my house

You are a bad god

Go and whisper on some other pillow

Do not lift your snake head in my house

Do not bite any more beautiful people. . .”

That’s the spirit, Ted!

The Art of the Glimpse includes work  – from across the centuries  – by Samuel Beckett, Sally Rooney, Melatu Uche Okirie, William Trevor, Marian Keyes, Kevin Barry, Edna O’Brien, Claire-Louise Bennett, Sheridan Le Fanu, Danielle McLaughlin, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor and Maeve Brennan – and 87 others!  It appears in October 2020.

 

 

 

Did you watch Normal People, Hilary?

hilary mantel

Today I should be basking in the afterglow of having met and introduced one of my literary heroines, Hilary Mantel, who was due to read at University College Cork on May 19, 2020. Like so many literary events, the show could not go on because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when you’re preparing for a public event like this, and it doesn’t happen, the questions still remain.

Some of my queries relate to the time before – the pre-virus world, if you like – and even in the unlikely event of the reading having gone ahead, the pandemic would, of course, have featured in the discussion.

Any interviewer starts off with a list of prepared questions, things she’s curious about, but the nature of a live event means that the course of an interview can never be predicted, much less managed. Because at its best, an author interview is an exchange and the interviewee’s answers often dictate the next question.

But given all that, here are some of the things I might have asked on the night.

Before:

How long did it take you to master the history of Tudor England, its politics and its events, before you started to write, or did that happen in the process of writing?

Why so hard on Sir Thomas More?

In the public mind, the Wolf Hall trilogy has probably eclipsed your other work – do you mind that?

My favourite novels of yours are Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Beyond Black. What’s your favourite from your pre-Wolf Hall work?

What marked your earlier novels out was the fact that no two were the same.  They explored very different worlds.  After 15 years writing the Wolf Hall trilogy – “working in the crypt” in your own words – do you crave a change from Tudor England?

The Wolf Hall success came after a lifetime of  writing to a loyal but limited readership.  Apart from the material rewards, are fame and acclaim welcome or intrusive, or both?

After:

The Mirror and the Light came out just as the pandemic took hold.  It became for many readers the ultimate early lockdown read, for its totally immersive properties.  Apart from its size (over 800 pages, and as we know in pandemics size matters) and the fact that it’s the closure of a trilogy,  what else would give it resonance for readers now?

You have written very movingly about how chronic illness has shaped and distorted your life in your memoir, Giving up the Ghost.  How did your own relationship  with what Susan Sontag calls the “kingdom of the sick” affect your attitude to the COVID-19 crisis in which everyone has been touched by the spectre of disease?

Would you write plague any differently, post COVID-19?

In an interview you mentioned you’d discovered Irish author’s Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales during lockdown. You describe it as “truly one of the best novels I have ever, ever read. . . I wish heartily that I could have written it myself.”  What makes it so good?

Did you watch “Normal People”?

 

 

Una Watters goes solo

C583D398-DF6F-4DEF-A62F-5A1A09FCF1BB
The Flute Player – 1953

For some time now I’ve been championing the work of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918 – 1965) whose reputation has, sadly, fallen into neglect. I’ve been working with Una’s family, in particular her niece, Sheila Smith,  in order to change this.  We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half trying to trace Una’s paintings with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition and bring her work to a new public.

This task has been harder than you might expect because much of Una’s work has been held in private hands since the mid-1960s.  Only two paintings of hers, that we know of,  have come up for auction in recent times – one in 2007, and another in 2019.  There’s a reason for this.  After Una’s sudden death in 1965, aged 47, her heart-broken husband, Irish language novelist and poet Eoghan O’Tuarisc (Eugene Watters) gathered together 37 of her oil paintings for a memorial show. Afterwards, he distributed all of Una’s paintings among family and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

The catalogue of this 1966 show formed the basis of our searches, but because of the way the work was distributed, there was very little in the way of a paper trail.  Given the time that has elapsed, many of the paintings have passed on to the next generation or the one after that in families, and people may not recognize Una’s work or know the story of how her paintings came into their possession.  That said, everyone we came across, and there have been many, was very attached to their Una Watters and glad to share images of her work.

Due to their generosity, we have been able to launch today (April 28, 2020)  – unawattersartist.wordpress.com – a new website dedicated to Una’s work. This site collates the fruit of our quest with a gallery of some of the work we’ve found along the way. Our plans to host another retrospective show of Una’s work  – the first since 1966 – has been thwarted by the COVID-19 crisis but we’re hoping this site will be a virtual substitute for a show and will introduce Una’s work to the wider audience she deserves. We hope unawattersartist.wordpress.com  may become a resource for those interested in Una’s work both as scholars and/or art enthusiasts.

 

 

 

Driven potty by tourism

lello 3When is a bookshop not a bookshop?

On a recent visit to Porto – luckily, a winter visit; you’ll see why later – we made our way to Livraria Lello, ranked as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. And so it is.  Built in 1906, the shop presents an exquisite art deco, Moorish style exterior and an arabesque interior of mock-gothic shelving, a ceiling with high-church stained glass panels and a Gaudi-esque staircase curling its way up through the store’s three floors like the demented manifestation of a Dali nightmare.

Not only was the shop beautiful, it was thronged.

What’s not to like when a bookshop attracts hordes of customers? Particularly when many of them were making a pilgrimage to honour an author? As a native of Dublin, this is a concept I’m familiar with;  after all, Joyce’s imagined characters from Ulysses, and the places they inhabit, get a special day of celebration devoted to them every year on June 16 for Bloomsday.

So what’s the problem? Tourism is what.

Livraria Lello started charging its customer a fee to enter (set against book purchases) in 2015 when it was swamped by so many visitors the shop couldn’t function as a business any longer.  The business of selling books, that is. Now when you arrive on Rua des Carmencitas, you’re steered to a shopfront two doors away to buy a ticket. Then you queue on the street outside to gain entry.  Since it was December, there were only about five people ahead of us so we got in without a wait.  But in summer, the queue stretches for several blocks and people wait for hours on end.

lello outside

Nevertheless, despite the short queue, the long, high, narrow premises seemed very crowded indeed. There were clusters of stationary people stuck behind displays and frozen in the narrow alleyways arms aloft taking photos with their phones.  That staircase, in particular, was jammed with people taking selfies.  On the display tables in the middle of the shop-floor, there were beautiful gift editions of English language classics for sale, Dickens, Flaubert, Wilde (Livraria Lello is also a book publisher with a long tradition) but no one was looking at them. Likewise the shelves were packed with fabulous books on the arts, the sciences, along with celebrated Portuguese authors like Pessoia and Saramago, three floors high.  But the crowds were not here for any of those either; they were here because of Harry Potter.

The Livraria Lello bookshop is supposedly the inspiration for the Flourish and Blotts bookshop for wizards in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling spent two years in Porto in the early nineties as an English language teacher and she wrote much of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while in the city.

Look, I’ve nothing against Harry Potter or the deserved success of J.K. Rowling. (Full disclosure: I’ve never read Harry Potter nor seen any of the films.)  Far from it, I see that Rowling managed to enthuse thousands of  reluctant child readers to tackle the long narrative, in the same way Enid Blyton did for child readers of my generation.  In fact, I’ve often thought that the Potter books are like Blyton’s boarding school series, just with wizards.

I understand completely why the Lello has monetized its premises.  It was, apparently, a failing bookshop, which it isn’t anymore. It’s a thriving example of cultural tourism, the same kind of tourism that fuels Bloomsday. But being a crushed sardine in a beautiful cathedral devoted to literature, to be unable to access, let alone browse through the books, because of the ever-pressing, onward urgent movement of the transitory visitors intent on the next photo op, was utterly dispiriting.

This was no longer a bookshop experience; this was closer to a bad airport trip.

The Potter brigade was not interested in the literary history, the architectural flourishes or the function of the shop. They were moved by the merchandising of a tiny, atomized sliver of J K Rowling’s fictional imagination. (I wondered how many of the Potter fans in the Lello shop that day had ever read the books, but just seen the films.)

“Livraria Lello is still a meeting place for thinkers, artists and writers,” the promotional pamphlet for the bookshop that we got with our E5 entry fee, declared, but it was hard to imagine it that rainy December Thursday.

Instead, the shop represented a depressing microcosm of viral tourism, in which volume distorts the very experience it seeks to promote.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing up the bodies

nora b

T’is the season for exhumations. First it was Franco, now it’s Joyce.

Dublin city councillors agreed last week to approach the Government with a view to repatriating the remains of  James Joyce, buried with his wife Nora Barnacle in Fluntern cemetery in Zurich. Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, who proposed the motion, said it would be “honouring someone’s last wishes” – a delightfully vague locution. Does he mean Joyce?  Does he know something we don’t?

However, unwittingly, Cllr Lacey is right.  Seventy years ago, it was Nora Barnacle’s hope that Joyce’s remains be returned to Ireland. It was a matter of honour for her, perhaps tinged by a touch of funeral envy.

In 1948, still living in Zurich because she wanted to be close to her husband’s grave, Nora observed the official pomp and ceremony with which the body of the poet W. B. Yeats was repatriated to Ireland from the south of France where he’d died in 1939. (Yeats had long expressed a wish to be buried in Drumcliff  churchyard in Sligo.)

“The coffin was taken from France to Galway bay by a ship of the Irish navy; there the widow, her children and the poet’s brother were piped aboard.  Then a funeral procession escorted them from Galway to Sligo where Yeats was buried with a military guard of honour and representation from the Irish government,” writes Brenda Maddox in her biography of Nora. “Why not the same for Joyce?”

The answer at the time, of course, was that Yeats was in much higher standing in Ireland than Joyce was; he had served as a Free State senator, a “smiling, public man”, whereas Joyce remained in the Irish imagination of the time as “shocking, blasphemous and arrogant”, as Maddox puts it, whose books if not outrightly banned were seized at the borders.

However, unofficial approaches were made. Joyce’s American patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver asked Count Gerald O’Kelly, a former diplomat and art critic and Georgian afficionado, Constantine Curran, a boyhood friend of Joyce’s, to inquire if the Irish Government or the Royal Irish Academy would consider requesting the return of the body.

Miss Weaver believed that if Joyce’s remains were repatriated, then Nora and Joyce’s son, Giorgio, might consider returning themselves.  (Nora had told American interviewer, Sandy Campbell, that she’d like to have a “cottage in Ireland, but the Irish don’t like Joyce so there you are”.)

Maria Jolas, another lifelong campaigner for the Joyces, added her support saying that Joyce ‘s body should be be brought back because his widow wished it and because he was a towering figure of Irish literature.  With a view to her audience, she also declared that Joyce remained a good Catholic.

But this view was not shared in Dublin.  Count O’Kelly’s back-channel inquiries revealed there was little support for Joyce’s repatriation.  Ireland had apparently not forgiven him for his scandalous work and the plan came to nothing.

Unlike the 1948 campaign, the present move by Dublin city councillers seems motivated more by gain than honour.  The James Joyce “industry” has long been a tourist goldmine for the city.

The Bloomsday celebrations – memorialising June 16, 1904, the day Joyce had his first date with Nora, and the date he chose to set his novel Ulysses on – is a fixture on the tourist calendar, although it started as a spontaneous tribute to the writer by a small group of literati in Dublin.

Comic writer Brian O’Nolan (otherwise known as Flann O’Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen), poet Paddy Kavanagh, writer Anthony Cronin, registrar of Trinity College, A J Leventhal, publican John Ryan and dentist Tom Joyce, a cousin of Joyce’s, made the first Bloomsday pilgrimage on June 16, 1954.

The shambolic expedition, complete with two horse-drawn cabs – echoing the one taken by Bloom and his friends to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses – was cut short before all the sites in the novel could be visited, due to the amount of alcohol that was consumed and the fractious mood of the participants. (Fisticuffs threatened between O’Nolan and Kavanagh)

Since then, Bloomsday  – still observed and enjoyed by Joyce’s literary admirers – has been all but hijacked for its tourist potential by the Dublin authorities.  It’s those same authorities who’ve been leading the charge to dig up Joyce from his burial place in Zurich and bring him home.

The Swiss authorities are thinking the same way. Director of the Joyce Foundation in Zurich, Fritz Senn said there would be “resistance” in Switzerland as Joyce’s  grave has become a major tourist attraction there. After all, Senn pointed out, Joyce never accepted Irish citizenship and the Irish Government of the time neglected to send an envoy to his funeral.

The Swiss provided much-needed sanctuary for the Joyces at the the outbreak of World War 2 and Nora continued to live there till her death in 1951.

Both cities clearly have their eye on the next big Joyce anniversary which comes in 2022, marking 100 years since the publication of Ulysses. 

In the meantime, is it a case of bring up your bodies? If so, who’s next – Samuel Beckett?  Look out, Montparnasse!

 

 

Disputing light and shade

sorolla sad inheritance 1899

Why would anyone today want to spend time and money visiting a retrospective of such an oddity, asked Jonathan Jones in The Guardian earlier this year, decrying “Sorolla: Spanish Painter of Light”, an exhibition which has now travelled to the National Gallery Dublin.

Well, me for one, Jonathan!

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863 – 1923) was in his time a prodigious and prosperous painter whose work was literally drenched in light, as the subtitle of the show suggests.  Luminosity was his by-word, the effects of sun-dazzle on water, the lilac hues of evening on land, and its warm glow playing on skin and fabric. None of which is evident in the painting above, entitled Sad  Inheritance, painted in 1899, a prize-winner at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, where it caused a sensation.

The “sad inheritance” of the title refers to the disabled children featured who are the victims of hereditary syphilis.  It’s a far cry from Sorolla’s usual impressionist landscape of sun-drenched beaches, parasols and picnics.  In this very large canvas (three metres  wide)  a black-robed priest tends to a crowd of naked boys, deathly pallid, blind and physically disabled, as they plunge into the sea for a therapeutic swim.

For 21st century eyes, it’s impossible to look at this image with any degree of innocence.  Everything about it screams abuse. It seems abusive even to look at it, something makes us want to look away – the nakedness and vulnerability of the children, the menacing presence of the grim-faced priest, the way his hand manacles the arm of the struggling boy on crutches.  The ghosts of Magdalene laundries and industrial schools and orphanages intrude and can’t be ignored.

But it raises the perils of retrospective criticism, dismissing a piece of art because the artist was ignorant of its associations for the generations who come after him. As John Berger asked in his seminal work, The Art of Seeing: “To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong?”

Unusually, Sorolla painted this piece in the studio although most of his sea and beach scenes were done en plein air in his home town of Valencia, and later in San Sebastien, and Biarritz.

Although this painting built his international reputation, Sorolla abandoned an overt social realist strain in his work after 1900. But it didn’t disappear; instead, it was backgrounded.  When he depicted the luxuriant, fun-filled world of the Mediterranean seaside, children frolicking in the waves, boys running naked on the shore, white-clad and bonnetted women paddling with toddlers in the shallows, it was often accompanied by the working world of the beach.  Hawkers, fishermen, the drivers of oxen who pulled the fishing boats into shore populate the margins of these idyllic scenes.

The world of work and play sit side by side; we may be, as Sorolla was, intoxicated by the nostalgic light he steeps both his subjects and us in. This glow is pure emotion, imbuing his beach scenes with the sun-blown, sand-dusted, unfettered memories of childhood.  But he never lets us forget the reverse side of this world, propped up by a working class who are darkly omnipresent. (In another painting of this period, Raisin Pickers (1901), Sorolla shows a group of women bent over their work in a gloomy interior, lit only by a wedge of forked light that slices the canvas in two, hinting at the bright, sunlit freedom of outside.)

sewing - sorollaIt is true Sorolla’s primary interest was painterly rather than social. Hardly a hanging offence for a visual artist. “Sorolla understood light not as an object but as spectacle, like energy that, in certain circumstances, converts nature and figures into overwhelming instances of vitality,”  writes Jose Maria Faerna Garcia-Bermejo in Sorolla: Modern Masters (Poligrafa).

But Jonathan Jones of The Guardian doesn’t agree. “Today Sorolla is doubly archaic.  Not only do his paintings capture the claustrophobia of traditional Spain before surrealism, anarchism and civil war shook its pieties, but his flamboyant academic style, touched by French innovations in painting yet wedded to much older ideals of figurative art, is blatantly pre-modern.”

Which is like blaming the painter for being born too soon.

Sorolla may well have been a conservative genre painter and may not have matched the sweep and riskiness of the Impressionists, but his treatment of light is both revolutionary and transformative, a gift that can only be appreciated by seeing his luminescent work in  – and on – the flesh.  All of the images here can be seen at the National Gallery where the show continues till November 3.

el pescador - Sorolla

 

 

The surreality show

diane lockhart

Almost everyone I know is either watching, or denying they watch Love Island.  I belong to the deniers because I’ve been following instead what I think is the most interesting reality (or should that be surreality?) show around at the moment – the American legal drama, The Good Fight.  

Just finished its third season, The Good Fight is a spin-off from a successful parent show,  a notoriously risky venture in the world of TV.  (Remember Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc which followed the actor character from the mega-successful Friends to a new life in LA.  No? I rest my case.)

The Good Fight sprang from The Good Wife,  a long-running, traditional legal procedural,  a celebrity vehicle for Julianna Marguilies (Nurse Carol Hathaway in ER), who played Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother forced to return to the workplace when her Chicago state’s attorney husband Peter (Chris Noth) is jailed over a sex and corruption scandal. 

Christine Baranski was a stalwart in that series.  She played seasoned lawyer Diane Lockhart, a partner in the firm Alicia Florrick joins as a 40-something legal newbie.  But it was essentially a sidekick role, despite the oomph Baranski brought to it.

The Good Wife was solid, dependable drama. Plenty of courtroom action, a rather cloying unrequited love sub-plot, a smattering of dirty politics, and lots of legal horse-trading. So far, so predictable. It ran for seven seasons before dying of exhaustion and the news that there was going to be a spin-off was greeted with some trepidation. Especially by Marguilies’ fans.

That it would be built around the character of Diane Lockhart was encouraging. This was a bold move. Not that Baranski doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a series – she’s an Emmy and Tony-awarded performer (she sings and dances, as well as acts – starring in both Mamma Mias, for example). No, the risk was founding an entire series on a female character in her late 60s.  (Baranski is 67).

Furthermore, Diane Lockhart is a conservative feminist, in a strangely loose marriage with a right-wing Republican (played by Gary Cole) who does not share her political views, and she works at a predominantly African-American law firm where her white privilege is constantly being challenged.

But in its three seasons The Good Fight has grown away from its middle-brow TV roots, and morphed into something else entirely.  I’m not even sure what genre it is now. Quasi-fictional?  Auto-fictional?  Semi-documentary?

The Good Fight has inherited its predecessor’s template of riffing on the headlines for its storylines, featuring #MeToo type sexual predation charges, a Bernie Madoff-style  financial scam and Internet privacy challenges among its cases, along with a good dose of office politics. But that’s where the similarity ends.  The clue’s in the title.  Fighting the good fight is about trying very hard to do the right thing in trying circumstances.

That’s Diane Lockhart’s goal.  And the trying circumstances?  Being a good citizen in the middle of a Trump presidency. Trump is constantly name-checked in this series.  Barely a scene goes by where he’s not present, if only by implication.  One episode suggests First Lady Melania Trump has approached the firm via a proxy looking for a divorce. Another concerns possession of an incriminating video involving Russian prostitutes and urination. Often the president’s name doesn’t even have to be invoked for the viewer to get the drift.

The creators have all but jettisoned the romantic entanglements of their key characters  – is this a reflection on the late middle age of the show’s heroine? – and scaled down much of the courtroom action.  Instead they show us Diane and her colleagues battling the contradictions of living in the Trump era as committed liberals and/or Democrats (these are Chicago lawyers, after all.)

So, for example, in the third season, Diane’s frustration with Trump sees her joining a radical women’s resistance group which sets out, by fair means or foul, to undermine POTUS electoral dominance by filing false SWAT call-outs (one of which gets a White House aide killed) hacking electronic voting machines and engaging in the black arts of false news.

“The difficulty doesn’t come from weaving real life politics in, it comes from not weaving it in,” series creator Michelle King told Variety magazine last month. “Every day the writers’ room gets together and talks about what they’ve been reading and seeing in the news the day before and frankly what they find the most shocking and can’t turn their eyes away from. Given that it’s a group obsession, it’s a very natural flow from that to the show.”

As a result, The Good Fight has dropped all pretence of being a fiction. So closely does it stick to its political inspiration that the viewer is constantly playing who’s who with the cast.  Is Diane’s on-again/off-again marriage with right-wing ballistics expert Kurt McVeigh (now working for the Trump administration) based on White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s relationship with her husband, George T Conway? ( Mr Conway is a distinguished lawyer who was once in the running to be US solicitor general, but is now an outspoken critic of the Trump administration which he has likened to “a shitshow in a dumpster fire”.)  Swap the gender roles and the similarities with Kurt and Diane are inescapable.

Another innovation the show has adopted is the insertion of animated musical shorts into the narrative to underline episode themes.  There have been skits on non-disclosure agreements, Russian troll farms and Chinese media censorship (more of this later).

These memes function as visual thought bubbles. The action and the characters are paused mid-scene while the viewers are given a short dose of agit-prop.  Trouble is, they are often not as witty as the satirical live action scripts. That said, it is refreshing to see a middle-aged, middle-brow TV drama dropping the fourth wall, stretching the visual vernacular and being really playful with form.

Ironically, the shorts have turned out to be more than mere technical gimmickry. One of them recently became a news story itself. Entitled “Banned in China”, the segment  was due to be inserted into an episode about the human cost of Chinese government censors until CBS pulled the plug.  Where the meme should have run, a placard appeared reading ‘CBS Has Censored This Content’. Initially, viewers thought this was part of an in-show  joke until the New Yorker broke the story. 

Responding, show runners, Robert and Michelle King threatened to pull out of the series, then insisted that the placard would have to air for the full 90 seconds that the segment would have taken. In the end they compromised on eight and half seconds.

It’s just one more example of the blurred lines between fact and fiction that the show has engendered. The closer its storylines get to “reality”, the more, it seems, reality bites.

In fact, the “reality” component of The Good Fight is so persuasive that it’s the fictional conceits that seem outlandish. British actor Michael Sheen has been chewing the scenery of late as fantasist attorney Roland Blum who cites Roy Cohn, political fixer and Trump influencer as a role model.  Maverick oddball Blum creates havoc in the plush, politically correct environs of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart.  But the drama seemed over-egged and Sheen too over-the-top. In its willed eccentricity, his performance seemed to belong to another show altogether – the ridiculous antics of Ally McBeal, the 90s manifestation of the TV legal drama.

It’s as if the producers were trying to distract us from the “reality” The Good Fight is desperately trying to immerse us in  – with some really camp fiction.

Or maybe it’s all of a piece and I just can’t tell the difference anymore?

Or maybe that’s the whole the point?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homesick at the Pension Russe

pension russe

The seaside resort of Nervi, the last outpost of suburban Genoa, Italy,  was not a place I expected to find the legacy of  the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) so visibly remembered.  I was in the area for a month-long writing residency at the nearby Bogliasco Foundation and my daily walk took me past a slightly forbidding-looking villa on Nervi’s shady Via Aurelia, at the southern, less frequented end of the town.

After several weeks I spotted it, a plaque set high on the gable of the building  seen here on the left hand side of the photograph above, commemorating Tsvetaeva’s time here – from November 1902 to May 1903  – when she was just ten years of age.

Marina’s mother, a gifted concert pianist, had been diagnosed with TB in 1901, and her doctors decreed that her only chance of recovering was to move to a warmer climate.  Marina, her sister Anastasia (Asya), her father, Ivan Tsvetaev, founder and director of the Pushkin’s Museum of State Arts in Moscow, and her older step-sister Valeria (from her father’s first marriage)  travelled to Nervi so her mother could take the cure.

marina-cvetaeva-1914

It was to be a formative experience for the poet.  Because of her mother’s illness, she and Asya were left very much on their own. “Thus for the first time in their lives, they were free. They could behave like children, and they had a marvelous time with the sons of the owners of the pensione, climbing the cliffs, lighting campfires on the beach, learning to smoke, getting sun-tanned and wild,” writes Lily Feiler author of Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell.

The family stayed at the Pension Russe, a boarding house for Russian emigrés.  But this was no ordinary boarding house – its inmates, for the most part, were like Marina’s mother, invalids or TB patients. According to Baedecker’s 1906 Handbook for Travellers, Nervi  –  “surrounded with groves of olives, oranges , and lemons”  – was the oldest winter-station on the Italian Eastern Riviera, much frequented by English, Russians and Germans as a health resort.

“A feature of the place is the dust-free and sunny Coast Promenade (to the left on leaving the station), which runs along the shore above the rocky beach, and is protected by a lofty wall on the landward side. Pleasantly placed benches on the promenade and in the adjoining gardens afford resting-places for patients who wish to be much in the open air without taking active exercise,”  the guide goes on.

As well as unprecedented freedom, the sojourn at Nervi also provided Marina and her sister with more sombre life lessons. Although her mother’s health improved there,  she and Asya  were  constantly surrounded by the spectre of death.  “How many  I have seen of them during my mother’s illness, doctors coughing out the last shred of confidence that it’s a little bronchitis, and fathers of families who didn’t think ahead far enough to say farewell to their children,” she recalled in later years.

She remembered a young German,  Reinhard Roever, staying at the pensione at the same time, who was shortly to die of TB, burning a piece of cigarette paper one evening and as the ashes flew upward he exclaimed – “Die Seele fliegt” (The soul is in flight). “To the melody of his holy Bach in the darkening Italian room with windows like doors, he taught Asya and me the immortality of the soul,” Tvestaeva wrote in her memoirs.

The pensione was also a hotbed of anti-Tsarist politics – activists and anarchists frequented its rooms from whom the sisters learned revolutionary songs, with their mother accompanying them on the piano.

During their stay, the Tsvetaevs were joined by Professor Dmitri Ilovaisky, an eminent Russian historian, who was the father of Ivan Tsvetaev’s first wife.  Like his son-in-law, he had remarried after being widowed, and was the father of  two teenage children, Nadia and Sergei, (technically step-aunt and uncle to Marina) to whom she was exceptionally close. 

In his biography,  Tsvetaeva, The Woman, The World and Her Poetry, Simon Karlinksy notes that by age four Marina had developed a crush on Sergei, but her more serious attachment was to Nadia, eight years older than her. In a letter to Vera Bunina in May 1928, Tsvetaeva wrote that it was only after Nadia’s death that she could give her feelings true rein.  

But by the time they arrived in Nervi, both Nadia and Sergei were already mortally ill with TB. Nadia died two years later in Russia, as did Marina’s mother.  Recollections of Sergei and Nadia were central to Tsvetaeva’s memoir The House near Old St Pimen’s Church  (1934).  In it she described the damp and draughty quarters in which Illovasiky’s children from his two marriages were raised and which caused all but two of them to die of TB by the age of 20.  Karlinsky describes the memoir as the poet’s “monument to that youthful infatuation with the lovely Nadia”.

Marina’s subsequent life was to be a catalogue of upheaval and tragedy, a victim of the violent turbulence of her country’s 20th century history. She married army officer Sergei Efron in 1912; they had two daughters, Ariadna and Irina, and later a son, Georgy.  She survived the Russian Revolution, after which  Efron joined the White Army.  The couple were separated for five years while the Civil War raged. During the Moscow famine, Tsvetaeva, alone and penniless, was forced to place her daughters in a state orphanage, where the younger, Irina, died of starvation in 1920, aged three.

In 1922, Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, then to Prague, before settling in Paris in 1925. She never quite fitted in with the Russian literary exile set in Europe, and her denouncements of the Soviet system in her work meant that her name was unmentionable in Russia and her poetry ignored.

At the end of the Thirties, Efron was exposed as an agent of the Soviet secret police involved in several political assassinations, including, allegedly, Trotsky’s son. He fled to the Soviet Union.  Tsvetaeva, who apparently knew nothing of her husband’s terrorist activities, was subsequently ostracized by the Russian community in Paris.

Karlinsky writes she followed Efron to Moscow in 1939  in the mistaken belief that it would help him and secure a better future for their son. On her arrival, she learned that her sister Asya – with whom she had played on the beach at Nervi –  had been sent to a hard-labour camp.

Two months after Tsvetaeva’s return, her daughter Ariadna was arrested on espionage charges, and her husband was executed.  When the German army approached Moscow in 1941, she and sixteen-year-old Georgy were evacuated to Yelabuga, Tatarstan, where she committed suicide by hanging herself in August 1941. She left a note for her son in which she wrote: “Forgive me, but to go on would be worse.”

Georgy volunteered for the Eastern Front where he died three years later, but Tsvetaeva’s daughter, Ariadna, and her sister, Asya, also a poet and memoirist, survived the war and the Stalin purges, and both wrote about Tsvetaeva and her work.  Ariadna died in 1975, but Asya lived on until 1993.

Her poem “Homesickness”, translated here by Boris Dralyuk, captures Tsvestaeva’s vehemence and spiky alienation, its declarations of denial and defiance subtly undermined by the final melancholic line.  The spirit of the child who had frolicked in the waves at Nervi with her beloved sister, had been well and truly extinguished by then. 

HOMESICKNESS

Homesickness! Silly fallacy
laid bare so long ago.
It’s all the same where I’m to be
entirely alone —
 
it’s all the same across what stones
I lug my shopping basket,
toward some house as alien
as a hospital or barracks.
 
I do not care what faces see
me bristle like a captive lion,
or out of which society
I’m quickly forced into my own
 
fenced realm of silent feelings.
I’m like an iceless polar bear —
just where I fail to fit (won’t try!)
and am belittled, I don’t care.
 
My native tongue will not delude
me with its milky call.
I won’t, I can’t be understood
in any tongue at all
 
by passersby (voracious eaters
of newspapers, milkers of rumor) —
they’re of the twentieth century,
and me — no time is home to me!
 
Dumbfounded, like a log that fell
on an abandoned lane,
all is the same to me, all, all
the same, and what has been
 
most dear to me now matters least.
All signs, all memories and dates
have been erased:
A soul born — any place.
 
My homeland cared for me so little
that the most clever snoop
could search my soul for birthmarks — he’ll
find nothing with his loupe!
 
Yes, every house is strange to me
and every temple — barren.
All, all the same. Yet, if I see,
alone along the verge – a rowan. . .

 

May 3, 1934
marina t - plaque